The metabolic basis of Alzheimer disease (AD) pathology and expression of AD symptoms is poorly understood. Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids have previously been linked to both protective and pathogenic effects in AD. However, to date little is known about how the abundance of these species is affected by differing levels of disease pathology in the brain.

We performed metabolic profiling on brain tissue samples from 43 individuals ranging in age from 57 to 95 y old who were stratified into three groups: AD (N = 14), controls (N = 14) and "asymptomatic Alzheimer's disease" (ASYMAD), i.e., individuals with significant AD neuropathology at death but without evidence for cognitive impairment during life (N = 15) from the autopsy sample of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA). We measured 4,897 metabolite features in regions both vulnerable in the middle frontal and inferior temporal gyri (MFG and ITG) and resistant (cerebellum) to classical AD pathology. The levels of six unsaturated fatty acids (UFAs) in whole brain were compared in controls versus AD, and the differences were as follows: linoleic acid (p = 8.8 x 10-8, FC = 0.52, q = 1.03 x 10-6), linolenic acid (p = 2.5 x 10-4, FC = 0.84, q = 4.03 x 10-4), docosahexaenoic acid (p = 1.7 x 10-7, FC = 1.45, q = 1.24 x 10-6), eicosapentaenoic acid (p = 4.4 x 10-4, FC = 0.16, q = 6.48 x 10-4), oleic acid (p = 3.3 x 10-7, FC = 0.34, q = 1.46 x 10-6), and arachidonic acid (p = 2.98 x 10-5, FC = 0.75, q = 7.95 x 10-5). These fatty acids were strongly associated with AD when comparing the groups in the MFG and ITG, respectively: linoleic acid (p < 0.0001, p = 0.0006), linolenic acid (p < 0.0001, p = 0.002), docosahexaenoic acid (p < 0.0001, p = 0.0024), eicosapentaenoic acid (p = 0.0002, p = 0.0008), oleic acid (p < 0.0001, p = 0.0003), and arachidonic acid (p = 0.0001, p = 0.001). Significant associations were also observed between the abundance of these UFAs with neuritic plaque and neurofibrillary tangle burden as well as domain-specific cognitive performance assessed during life. Based on the regional pattern of differences in brain tissue levels of these metabolites, we propose that alterations in UFA metabolism represent both global metabolic perturbations in AD as well as those related to specific features of AD pathology. Within the middle frontal gyrus, decrements in linoleic acid, linolenic acid, and arachidonic acid (control>ASYMAD>AD) and increases in docosahexanoic acid (AD>ASYMAD>control) may represent regionally specific threshold levels of these metabolites beyond which the accumulation of AD pathology triggers the expression of clinical symptoms. The main limitation of this study is the relatively small sample size. There are few cohorts with extensive longitudinal cognitive assessments during life and detailed neuropathological assessments at death, such as the BLSA.

The findings of this study suggest that unsaturated fatty acid metabolism is significantly dysregulated in the brains of patients with varying degrees of Alzheimer pathology.

PMID: 28323825

See following website for full manuscript.